by giorgio agamben
translated by lorenzo chiesa, with matteo mandarini
stanford, 328 pages, $70
The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life
by giorgio agamben
translated by adam kotsko
stanford, 184 pages, $50
The Church and the Kingdom
by giorgio agamben
translated by leland de la durantaye
seagull, 64 pages, $20
Several years ago, Giorgio Agamben began one of his lectures by asking why he had made law and theology the areas of his recent investigation. “A first answer,” he said, “which is obviously a joke, but every joke has a serious core, would be, because these are the only two fields in which Michel Foucault did not work.”
Agamben is a continental philosopher widely regarded as one of the most important contemporary thinkers on political theology and aesthetics. He follows Foucault and the postmodern tradition of genealogy by looking beneath the surface of contemporary phenomena, searching for the traces of earlier philosophical and political decisions that pervert our present existence. The most striking modern phenomena, from totalitarianism through liberal democracy to the current rule of economic technocrats and central bankers across much of Europe, have their roots in a forgotten past.
In exposing the roots of modern politics, Agamben hopes to open up a path to overcoming what he sees as its flaws. His core complaint: We allow ourselves to be dominated by the law of efficiency, which requires us to view all things, including the human things, in terms of their ability to be operated, their “operativity” (operosità). His central thesis: We’ve come to this because of a theo-political misstep. Like Heidegger, under whom he studied, he thinks that Western society has always been in a crisis brought about by Greek philosophy and Christian theology.
Agamben examines Christian theology in The Kingdom and the Glory in order to uncover a source for the fearful power of the modern economic state. The Highest Poverty and The Church and the Kingdom express the constructive side of his project: to find examples of human life outside the world of law, property, and economic rationality.
Chief among the distinctions that energized Greek philosophy was that between life as we find it and life as it should be lived. A goal of philosophy was to identify the best way of life and then realize it through a properly ordered political regime.
Heidegger viewed the philosophical quest for essences as the original sin in philosophy, a turn that corrupts our perceptions of existence. Transfixed by remote ideas of reality, we look at the actual world as something to be appropriated for human purposes. Rather than using what is available to us, we make the world perform according to our standard.
Agamben holds a form of Heidegger’s view, to which he adds a theo-political dimension. He argues that the traditional western interest in finding the good way of life, the ideal life, introduced a distorting dynamic. By constantly measuring human life against a standard, we are tempted to look at life as raw material to be shaped, a machine to be operated correctly or incorrectly. Human potential must be used, fed into an educational or disciplinary system that forms us to match an imposed ideal: Athenian citizen, Christian nobleman, English gentleman.
Agamben suggests that modernity comes to focus almost exclusively on the “usability” or “operativity” of life itself. It’s much easier for humans to agree on how to use the world than to agree about how we should live.
The sovereign liberal state emerges to prevent destructive quarrels over how we should live, quarrels that previously divided the West along religious lines. The modern economy now channels all our energy toward the productive appropriation of the world to human purposes. Agamben dislikes the liberal economy, in which everything is viewed in terms of operativity, and he detests the police apparatus required for the security of the modern state.
In The Kingdom and the Glory, he pins the blame for this reduction to operativity on the Christian understanding of providence. Aristotle’s god acts as a simple expression of his nature, but the Church Fathers distinguish the Christian God’s nature from his free act of creating and redeeming the world. God’s nature didn’t require him to create the world.
To explain God’s activity, the Church Fathers draw on the analogy of household management, or oikonomia. The head of a household has his own nature and proper acts but arranges the affairs of his household through a multitude of servants and ministers. Here economy means an “immanent ordering” provided by a supreme ruler through intermediaries.
In a long series of technical discussions of trinitarian theology, Agamben claims that the Christian notion of a divine economy implies that God has nothing left to do on his own. The Christian account places all the emphasis on the order God establishes in the world. The liturgical glorification of God hides this embarrassing secret: God’s operations in the world cover up the fact that he is “inoperative” in himself.
Agamben’s reading of modern politics is more powerful than his forced and occasionally tendentious readings of Christian theology. The modern state in all its forms, democratic or totalitarian, distinguishes between the sovereign people and the government that claims to serve them. However, in modern societies the people are for the most part “inoperative,” and government slowly assumes all power to itself.
This political dynamic reflects the distinction between God’s sovereignty in himself—which Agamben claims is inert—and the ordained power by which he actually executes his will. Just as God’s economy operates through intermediates and secondary causes, so too the modern state’s economy depends on the apparent freedom of its citizens.
Bureaucracy and police power imitate the role of the angels, God’s mediators and ministers, who operate directly to achieve desired outcomes. The role of the media and polling in modern democracies echo the medieval need for a liturgy of glorification: Both conceal that the sovereign—the will of the people—is not really there. Today we have an economy without God, an economy not of salvation but of making the world work.
The strength of Agamben’s account lies in his critique of the nearly hegemonic authority of “operative” reasoning in modern politics. Modern democratic man is blind to his own powerlessness in the face of economic rationality, the modern security apparatus, and an all-powerful bureaucracy—though Europe’s debt crisis and technocratic rule have helped more see the underlying problem. Agamben traces these features of modernity more to Rousseau than to medieval Christian theology.
Though Agamben’s genealogical method is often obscure, his description of modernity is compelling. The modern ways of making life “operative”—creating wealth, providing security, and administering order—manufacture their own legitimacy by constantly venerating a powerless democratic process.
Like most continental postmoderns after Heidegger, Agamben is wary of proposing simple solutions to the problems he identifies, and intends his elliptical prose to indicate the horizon at which our usual concepts could pass over into something new. But that is not all he offers. He looks to the Christian tradition for ways to overcome the present empire of operativity.
In a lecture at Notre-Dame de Paris in 2009 and now reprinted as The Church and the Kingdom, Agamben takes a quite different approach to Christianity. Instead of emphasizing how theology prepares the way for the empire of operativity, he contrasts the Church’s “economy of salvation” with the state’s “indefinite—and indeed infinite—governance of the world.” When the Church neglects its messianic vocation of viewing all things sub specie aeternitatis, economic activity pervades every sphere of human life.
Here the influence of Walter Benjamin’s messianism is evident. Agamben, who oversaw the Italian edition of the social critic’s work, relies on this more than the messianism he himself encourages for the Church. Like Benjamin, Agamben doesn’t herald any particular messiah. Instead, he exposes the concepts that constrain our social and political imaginations and thereby asks us to think in terms other than those categories.
The Highest Poverty provides a more focused and substantive vision of his hoped-for future. According to Agamben, the religious orders generally and the Franciscans especially understood their way of life in a way that evaded the political experience of an externally imposed law. Rather making life something governed by a rule, the Fathers spoke of their vita vel regula—living a life so completely that it became one with the rule. Since the monastic rule was a voluntary imposition, it was not like the law. The monks made a life one with its rule by viewing life liturgically.
This fusion of life with rule is important for Agamben because, on his reading of the Franciscan tradition, it short-circuits the Western focus on devising a law or set of rules by which to judge one’s life. In this way, monasticism actually avoids the temptation to think of life as something to be made “operative” for the sake of an ideal. Agamben sees in the Franciscan conception of poverty a way to achieve a life “entirely removed from the grasp of the law” and also not oriented around an exploitative “use of bodies and of the world.”
Agamben’s attraction to Franciscan mendicancy stems from its reduction of the monastic rule to the simple imperative of apostolic poverty. In renouncing property, the friars overcame the need to govern life by a rule and separated themselves entirely from the exploitation of the world. Agamben suggests that a world without property and law is indeed possible.
His invocation of the Franciscans is strange, however. The Franciscans themselves have frequently and famously quarreled over the terms of St. Francis’ ideal of poverty. It’s a history indicating that life does not easily fuse with rule, and it casts doubt on Agamben’s hopes for an end to “the grasp of law.” Moreover, Franciscans begged for their sustenance and therefore depended on the property arrangements of the rest of the world. Indeed, their disavowal of property has been linked by many scholars to the development of proto-modern theories of property and so can be seen as a clarification and reinforcement of the very arrangement Agamben hopes to overcome.
Agamben doesn’t want to revive any particular Christian forms, and so it may not matter to him that the actual Franciscan tradition often lacked his preferred qualities. This indifference to lived history makes it doubtful that Agamben’s own project of ushering in a world without law or property would be successful. As with Benjamin, messianism without a messiah shades into nihilism.
Like many continental philosophers, Agamben wants to usher in a world of human existence beyond the categories historically favored by the West. Doing so requires a sort of via negativa. Derrida’s deconstruction provides a famous example of this approach. However, Agamben seems to want more than demolition. Like others today—Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, for example—he turns to Christianity, but with mixed feelings.
Agamben traces the present-day omnipotence of rational governance back to the Church’s doctrines of God and salvation. But he also sees in the Church’s eschatological imagination and vision of apostolic poverty ways to escape that “iron cage.” In recent months he has also praised Benedict XVI’s courage in resigning—an attempt to secure the Church’s legitimacy in a manner that is rarely imitated by secular politicians. Perhaps the Church offers more examples than Agamben thinks.
Gladden J. Pappin is a distinguished fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.